National Champions! Men's Soccer Defeats Loras to Earn First Ever Title
Issue   |   Wed, 12/09/2015 - 00:21
David Peterlin
The men's soccer senior class graduates having lost just three games in their four-year careers, posting a 67-3-13 record and four trips to the sweet sixteen.

For the first time in program history, men’s soccer won the Division III national championship, completing the impressive feat this past weekend with a pair of hard-fought victories against ranked opponents at the Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri.

On Friday night in the Final Four, Amherst squared off against SUNY Oneonta, a talented team ranked eighth in the nation. Entering play in Kansas City with a 19-3-1 overall record, the Red Dragons had yet to allow a goal in its four previous NCAA Tournament games this year.

In the eighth minute of play, an Amherst defender was able to deflect a shot in the box from Dylan Williams.

Less than two minutes later, Amherst was making strides on offense after an effective counter-attack. Off this play, senior forward Nico Pascual-Leone, a recent NSCAA First Team All-New England Region selection and a NSCAA All-America second team honoree, fired a shot from a reasonable distance, but missed the opportunity to put Amherst ahead.

In the 25th minute, Andrew Orozco ’17 headed a ball to Greg Singer ’16, who then headed on net and almost put the purple and white ahead, but Red Dragons goalkeeper Vincent Pellegrino was able to make a great diving save to keep the game scoreless.

Amherst had a pair of corner kicks in the final minutes but could not capitalize on these opportunities, thus sending the game into overtime after a second half in which each team had attempted six shots.

On a SUNY Oneonta corner kick in the third minute of the first overtime, the Red Dragons were able to draw senior goalkeeper Thomas Bull away from goal, but the purple and white had two men on the back line to prevent SUNY Oneonta from scoring. On the play, defender Cameron Bean ’17 stepped up big to clear the ball out of trouble and keep the Red Dragons from scoring and winning the game.

The Red Dragons were threatening to score in the final minute of double overtime, but the Amherst defense stepped up strong and kept the game at 0-0. Thus, after 110 minutes in the Final Four, both teams were unable to score, sending the game into penalty kicks.

The purple and white got a huge momentum shift early on in penalty kicks, and Bull set the tone by punching away a shot that Williams had sought to roll in to the right-hand corner. Pascual-Leone then stepped up and buried a kick to give Amherst a 1-0 edge in penalties. While the second Red Dragons attempt had Bull guessing the wrong way, Hans Purtell put it wide of the post for SUNY Oneonta. Following the Red Dragons’ second consecutive failure to score, Bull stepped out of goal to take Amherst’s second penalty kick and was able to convert, giving the purple and white a significant cushion after two penalty kicks and putting immense pressure on the Red Dragons.

Singer matched SUNY Oneonta’s conversion on the third penalty kick, delivering a well-placed strike to the left. On the Red Dragons’ fifth kick, they were able to tie the penalty kick score at 3-3, but senior Milton Rico executed a very skillful shot to the top right corner to seal the match for Amherst.

With a 4-3 win in penalty kicks, Amherst would advanced to the National Championship the following evening. Throughout the game against the Red Dragons, Amherst’s defense stepped up repeatedly, resulting in another shutout for Bull.

“This whole year, we’ve had a really special group,” Bull said. “We seized the moment and were able to make the most of it.”

Following Amherst’s victory on Friday night, Loras College, ranked 11th nationally and sporting an 18-4-1 record entering play, advanced to the finals after a late first-half strike gave the Duhawks a 1-0 victory over Calvin, the no. 1 team in the country. The Duhawks were no strangers to playing late into the season, as their trip to Kansas City marked the program’s third trip to the Final Four in four seasons.

Both Amherst and the Duhawks were riding momentum into the national championship game, but Loras was able to stop the purple and white’s momentum with an early strike. In the ninth minute, Alex Bradley sent a pass from near the left end line to Kevin Higgins, who then grounded the ball from the center of 18-yard box to Johnny Rummelhart, who was standing right in front of Bull and was able to redirect the ball past the keeper to take the 1-0 lead.

However, while the purple and white just missed a chance to equalize prior to the corner, they would do so moments later. Off the corner kick from the left side from first-year midfielder Luke Nguyen, Jackson Lehnhart ’17 was able to powerfully head the ball in to the left corner, while running towards the near post and away from the goal, to put Amherst even with Loras.

Neither team put across another score in the first half, but it was not for a lack of trying, as both sides were explosive on offense, combining for 22 first-half shots. Amherst held a 13-9 edge in shots in the first period, with six shots on goal for purple and white and three for the Duhawks.

Off a thrown in from Lehnhart and a good set up from Singer, Ciambella lofted it over the keeper’s head to the far-right post on a clinical finish, putting the purple and white ahead 2-1 with 35 minutes remaining.

Following Ciambella’s strike, Loras was pressing for an equalizing goal, well aware that a national title was on the line. They even pulled their goalie past the half-line on several occasions in the final five minutes of the game, leaving nothing to chance. During the second half, the Duhawks managed to actually outshoot the purple and white, 13-6, but the Amherst defense remained airtight, and the purple and white denied a Loras comeback strike, as the purple and white proved to be the only squad that came away with a goal following the halftime break.

After the final whistle, Amherst had prevailed 2-1, and were crowned as 2015 Division III national champions, accomplishing the ultimate goal that every team in the nation strives for at the beginning of the season.

“Ever since we’ve gone through the recruiting process and gotten into the program, we’ve always talked about winning the national championship,” Bull said. “To finally break through and win the championship, this is the culmination of so much work and care from our coaches, alumni, our friends and family, and everyone else who has supported the program.”

Even with the championship trophy to show for in 2015, Justin Serpone will look back fondly on the entire process — not just the final outcome. “There is a quote I read about how ‘some targets aren’t meant to be hit’ and I consider the national championship in it’s abstract to be one of those things,” Serpone said. “It’s not the ‘winning’ that’s the important part, but the striving to win … the journey to win. I care much less about holding a trophy than all of the hours of practice, team meals and team movies, and little moments I got to share with this team.”

Pascual-Leone hopes that this year’s team can help set the standard for future teams in the program’s pipeline. “We had always talked about 2012, and before that it was 2008, as we often compare ourselves to other teams in Amherst soccer history,” Pascual-Leone said. “We got sick of hearing about 2012. That was the team that everyone looked up to within the Amherst soccer program before this season. The only reason that people will be taking about us now is because of our program history. Nothing could have happened without the class of 2012 and all of the classes who have come before and since.”

While the purple and white certainly had a magical journey within the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the list of accomplishments for the men’s soccer team in 2015 is particularly noteworthy. Overall, the team finished with an 18-1-2 overall record (a 9-0-1 NESCAC record), the team outscored opponents 45-5, and had a 47-6 assist edge. In the NCAA Tournament alone, Amherst outscored teams, 7-1. In 2015, the purple and white had two individual hat tricks in the same season (one by junior forward Chris Martin in the season opener and one by Pascual-Leone against Bates). Amherst also had 16 shutouts, eight of which came in NESCAC play. In the process of all of these shutouts in 2015, Bull set the career Division III shutout record with 50 career shutouts, a testament both to his incredible skill as a goalkeeper and the impressive defense in front of him.

The lone blemish for the purple and white this season came in the NESCAC quarterfinals, as eighth-seeded Wesleyan upset the top-seeded Amherst, 1-0, in the NESCAC Tournament. Amherst’s loss in the NESCAC quarterfinals marks the second straight time that the no. 1 seed in the NESCAC Tournament has been knocked off by the no. 8 seed in the NESCAC quarterfinals, before going on to win the national championship.

The Class of 2016 leaves a lasting legacy, both for their significant on-field contributions and their tremendous leadership and postseason experience. They graduate with a 67-3-13 overall record (the winningest class in program history), two NESCAC Championships, four trips to the NCAA Sweet 16, three trips to the NCAA Elite Eight, one trip to the Final Four and one Division III National Championship. In 2015, the seniors accounted for 50 percent of Amherst’s 44 goals (disregarding the own goal in the team’s favor), 30 percent of the team’s 47 assists, and 43 percent of its points. As a prime example of the graduating seniors’ veteran leadership, which has been on display throughout the season, seniors (Pascual-Leone, Bull, Singer and Rico) made all four penalty kicks that the purple and white converted against the Red Dragons in the Final Four.

As teams put their best foot forward against the defending national champions next season, Amherst will be well-prepared for the challenge in 2016, as the program is returning a number of key contributors and a bevvy of talent.